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Good English Language Teachers Are Those Who

In this post, I would like to raise a question that I believe is an important one for all teachers, regardless of  language status or racial or ethnic origin: What makes a good language teacher? Or to put it in another way: What are some of the characteristics that good English language teachers have? While I intend to identify and discuss a few factors, the list below is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. In fact, I hope that you will respond to this blog entry by posting your ideas on the topic.

Some of the factors that contribute to good English language teaching are….
1.     English language proficiency. First of all, teachers do not need to be native speakers in order to teach English. This fact has been well established in the literature. Pasternak and Bailey (2004) argue that being a native speaker is not the same as being proficient in a language or dialect. One can be a native speaker of a language and not be proficient in it. I would argue that what is necessary is a high degree of English language proficiency. However, how high the level of proficiency needs to be will depend on a variety of factors, including but not limited to the setting in which the teachers function, the skill areas to be taught, the purposes for which students study English, the students’ level of proficiency, etc. I believe that having a high level of proficiency is important because proficiency (or lack of thereof) contributes to teachers’ self-perceptions (positively or negatively) in the classroom (Kamhi-Stein, forthcoming) and contribute to teachers’ instructional practices, which in turn, can affect student motivation and learning (these points have been made by Butler, 2004; Richards & Lockhart, 1994).
2.     Declarative and procedural knowledge. Pasternak and Bailey (2004) explain that teachers need to have two kinds of knowledge: declarative knowledge (knowledge about something, for example, knowledge of how to explain a grammatical rule) and procedural knowledge (“the ability to do things” (p. 157, for example, being able to use the rule in connected speech).
3.     A good understanding about students’ needs and a plan of action for how to meet such needs. Good teaching draws on students’ needs (see Graves, 1996 for a description of several teacher-led projects that start with needs analyses). However, the process of designing a needs-based course is not a linear one or a fixed one (Graves, 1996). As Graves (2000) puts it, “designing a language course is a work in progress in its whole, in its parts, and in its implementation” (p. 9). Therefore, good teachers go into the classroom with a well-designed plan, but they are also flexible and modify their plans as needed.
4.     Pedagogical practices that are sensitive to the sociocultural context in which the teaching is done. What may be considered to be good teaching in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for example, may be very different from what may be considered to be good teaching in Pusan, Korea. In Buenos Aires, teachers are expected to use the target language only. They are also expected to implement communicative language teaching (CLT). I contend that these two expectations can, in part, be attributed to the strong impact that Argentine language teacher education programs have on teachers’ beliefs. Specifically, in Argentine language teacher education programs, there is a strong emphasis on and a belief in the notion that good teaching needs to avoid the use of the L1 and instead maximize the use of the TL. I also contend that the emphasis on CLT draws on the training and preparation of teacher educators themselves, who have been mainly exposed to Center country pedagogies (me included). In contrast to the situation in Argentina, Korea presents a different picture. Currently, there is a mismatch between governmental expectations on one hand and teachers’ beliefs about teaching and their language proficiency on the other. Specifically, while the Korean government expects teachers to teach communicatively and in English, teachers do not necessarily believe that English needs to be the sole language in the classroom. Another factor that contributes to the teachers’ non-exclusive use of the English language is that teachers may not necessarily perceive their language proficiency to be sufficient to teach in English (Butler, 2004). To further complexify the situation, the test-driven educational system may contribute to limiting the teachers’ instructional practices in that teachers may see themselves forced to “teach-to-the-test” (I should note that this is currently the situation in the U.S., where the No Child Left Behind law places great emphasis on test scores; thereby, leading teachers to teach-to-the test). In summary, the point that I want to make is that discussions of what counts as good teaching need to be contextualized and localized.
5.     Reflection. Critical reflection on one’s own teaching (through video-tapes of one’s own classes; journals; peers’ observations of one’s teaching, etc.) is critical if teachers are to continue developing their professional skills.
6.     A caring relationship. I contend that while all the factors that I have described above have been widely addressed in the literature, a discussion on the notion of caring relationships has been missing. Gay (cited in an autobiographical narrative by Callet, forthcoming in Kamhi-Stein) argues that teachers who establish caring relationships with their students create environments that contribute to student empowerment and academic achievement. Some of the strategies that caring teachers may implement in the classroom involve establishing a positive atmosphere that promotes teacher-student and student-student trust, engaging students in activities that allow them to see themselves as successful language learners rather than poor imitations of native speakers, etc. While the notion of caring relationships might be taken to be “touchy-feely,” there is nothing “touchy-feely” about them. In fact, I argue that caring relationships are critical if teachers and students are to be members of a classroom community.

While the list of factors that contribute to good teaching could have been longer, as I explained in my introduction, the list was not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. The list is simply meant to provide us with a starting point for a discussion. Therefore, I hope that after reading this blog entry, you and I will engage in a dialog that will allow us to discuss the above factors as well as identify other factors that have contributed to your instructional practices. I look forward to the exchange of ideas!

Butler, Y. G. (2004). What level of English proficiency do elementary school teachers need to attain in order to teach EFL? Case studies from Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 245-278.
Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (forthcoming). English language teachers narrating their lives: From the construction of professional identities to the construction of the language classroom.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Pasternak, M., & Bailey, K. M. (2004). Preparing nonnative and native English-speaking teachers: Issues of professionalism and proficiency. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on nonnative English-speaking professionals (pp. 155-175). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lia Kamhi-Stein (Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Learning, USC, 1995) is Professor in the M.A. in TESOL Program housed in the Charter College of Education at California State University, Los Angeles (CSLA). She is originally from Argentina, where she worked as a certified public translator and EFL teacher and program administrator with the Instituto Cultural Argentino Norteamericano (ICANA).


  1. Thanks for getting the discussion going Lia. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about point # 2. Are you referring to declarative and procedural knowledge of teaching, or of language, or both?

    Also, in relation to KAL (knowledge about language), what would you think are some of the aspects of language that teachers need to be familiar with?

    1. Ahmar, This is Lia. I lost the answer I had posted, so I am rewriting my original response. Let's see if I can recreate the ideas I wrote. In point 2, I was referring to declarative and procedural knowledge about language and teaching. I believe that teachers need to have good procedural and declarative knowledge of the English language. Now, how good or high their English knowledge should be will depend on some of the factors that I discussed in point 4. What counts as knowledge that teachers need to be familiar with in one context will be different from what counts as knowledge in another context. For example, consider students taking ESP classes at a university in Argentina. Their teachers would need to know about the discourse structures that are common in the areas in which they teach (biology, for example) and how biologists structure research articles and the language that is associated with the different sections of the research article (past tense for the methodology section, for example). At the same time, they would need to know how to explain all of these things and develop activities designed to teach students all of these things. Now, the same teacher, teaching for communication purposes at a regular EFL institute in Buenos Aires would be expected to know how to use language communicatively, explain grammatical rules used in context, be intelligible and able to teach students how to be intelligible.

      Now that I think about it, it could be that we look at knowledge on a continuum rather than as a dichotomy (as we do with proficiency). I look forward to some feedback on this idea...

      Teachers should also have declarative and procedural knowledge about teaching. At the most basic level, we should be able to design lesson plans and teaching from them and explain our rationale for doing what we do in the classroom. Looking forward to your ideas! and to not losing the posting again!

    2. Yes, I thought that you were referring to both language and pedagogy.

      I also think that it is important for teachers to have a metalanguage to be able to discuss language issues. It's sad to see that many TESOL programs have been watering down linguistics courses and don't emphasise theoretical knowledge that is (I believe) crucial for teaching.

      In addition, I do think that it is also important to consider what type of metalanguage we use. Traditional grammars are common (and to a degree shared), but have their limitations. Generative grammar is of very limited use to teachers. So, I personally find SFL to be more appropriate for teachers. Although people might disagree with this, I do think that it's a good starting point - even if it means that we have to learn quite a bit of technical stuff. But then, we shouldn't be too worried about that since teachers of other subjects need/learn technical knowledge too (e.g. science, math) - why should language teachers be any different?

      Regarding your point about knowledge being on a continuum. I'm not sure if I fully agree. While there are different kinds of knowledge, they can't necessarily be plotted on a continuum. For example, on the one hand there is knowledge that gives us medicine and airplanes ; and on the other there's knowledge that tells you your future by looking at cards or (to take a less extreme case) describes the life and history of the times of Shakespeare. These are all knowledge types, but they lead to very different results and applications. They are built on fundamentally different principles and assumptions and I would be wary of putting them on a continuum. I find the work of Bernstein quite useful in trying to get my head around knowledge construction.



    3. Posting from Lia:
      Thank you for the reference on Bernstein on knowledge construction! Regarding the metalanguage that you make reference to, declarative knowledge is metalanguage. I would expect all TESOL programs to provide their student teachers with declarative knowledge, and at a very minimum, declarative knowledge on grammar, regardless of the type of grammar that the program advocates. Interestingly enough, the work on SFL is reaching K-12 programs (most probably because this has been the focus of attention of SFL researchers in CA). Still, this interest is rather limited. As for technical stuff, regardless of whether you use The Grammar Book or you draw on SFL, technical vocabulary is a must if you are going to be a professional. Best, Lia

  2. Good language teachers are those who care, who share and who constantly prepare for their daily contact with learners.

    1. The response I had posted disappeared. So here we go again: I agree with you Carla on the idea that preparation is central to good teaching. And caring is critical. Teachers may be skillfull at teaching, but in order to be effective they need to connect with students and show them that they care about their learning.

  3. Thank you for this thought-provoking blogpost, Lia!

    I particularly appreciate the point about a caring relationship in the language classroom. Often, L2 teachers have a tendency to favour the more proficient learners and pay less attention to the less proficient ones. In a caring language classroom, however, all learners are equal and deserve our love and care, irrespective of their language backgrounds and levels of proficiency. If we can build a caring relationship with students, our classroom will definitely be a much nicer place to learn. In general I think non-native speaking English teachers may find it easier to establish a good rapport with their non-native students because of the commonalities between them. In particular, non-native speaking English teachers who share the same mother tongue with students can find it easier to establish trust and build a mutually caring relationship. Some teachers may get touchy-feely with their students, and as far as I know ‘touchy feely’ is often used to show disapproval. Lia thinks there is nothing ‘touchy feely’ about caring relationships, and I guess what is acceptable and appropriate and what is not will depend on a host of factors, including age, educational level, and culture. As teachers, I think we’ve got to be caring in a very sensible and sensitive way.

    Icy Lee
    Chair, NNEST-IS

  4. An interesting discussion and very relevant for all teachers- whatever their ethnic origin,race or teaching-learning contexts may be. I think even all teacher educators ask this question when designing curricula for teacher education/development programs. More important, criteria such as those outlined by Lia are used in teacher evaluation and appraisal for contract renewal and merit pay etc. However, in EFL contexts in particular, many teachers do not have a high proficiency in the language. They may have good declarative knowledge due to the focus on grammar in their school and teacher education programs but may not be able to use it correctly all the time in their oral interaction, in particular. Recently, we had a suggestion at our institution (an EFL setting) that if teachers are not proficient in English, they should not receive a high score in the other areas, e.g. pedagogy, in their appraisal based on classroom observation. As a non-native English teacher myself, I strongly disagreed with this (as many other native-speaker teachers in this context). Looking at the kind of teaching-learning of English in this context and the struggles of many non-native speaker teachers in learning English with the 'right' accent, I'm amazed at the level of success they've achieved. Should they be 'marked down' simply because they haven't had the same opportunities for learning English as some of their more fortunate counterparts? I firmly believe that as the proficiency of the majority of students in our program is quite low, it's really important to have 'local'or NNES bilingual teachers who can scaffold their students' language learning experiences through a strategic use of their L1 in the classroom. But suggestions like the one I've mentioned above is really demotivating for these teachers. Best, Fauzia Shamim.

  5. Lia,
    I'd be very interested in reading your forthcoming book on teachers' lives and construction of their professional identities.When do you think it would be available?

  6. Dear Lia,
    The aspects mentioned here are certainly crucial for a good language teacher. Declarative and procedural knowledge about the language and about learning and teaching are certainly fundamental, as are reflection, context-sensitivity and ability to create a caring and non-threatening learning environment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue.
    I just thought about a characteristic that in my view makes some teachers, if not more effective, at least more interesting than others: curiosity! Curiosity about the students and their lives - what they like, what they watch, listen to, talk about (especially with teens, knowing what they're hooked on can make miracles in the classroom); curiosity about the language, how it changes, how people use it in different parts of the world for different purposes, about new slang and expressions; curiosity about new trends not only in their professional field but also in general; curiosity about new tools, about how technology can enhance their teaching, about what other teachers are doing, about teacher associations like TESOL, IATEFL and others, about teacher blogs, twitter, edchat, TEDTalk, and the list could go on and on... The best teachers I've met are eager to learn, inquisitive. In other words, curious!

  7. Vocabulary is the body of words used in a particular language. In order to communicate through speech or writing one needs to be able to use the words within a language and understand that a word has a particular meaning. helps to enhance your vocabulary by giving better understanding of the words.